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Winning cures all problems
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
The media is lined up on either side of the gallery like Whigs and Tories, and the players don't really care one way or another about the Bobby Valentine vs. Steve Phillips dispute with the Mets. "Bobby has his agenda, Steve has his agenda," John Franco said before the season began, "and the players think it's pretty fun." That is, as Brian McRae pointed out, "except for those times when their disagreements can be heard outside the manager's office."
Some of this could have been avoided had owner Fred Wilpon just extended Bobby Valentine's contract for a year or two at the end of the 1999 season, rewarding Valentine for building the Mets into a playoff team after they had suffered six straight losing seasons before he came aboard. But Wilpon did not, and everyone from Queens to Wharton knows the lack of an extension eats at Valentine, whose human frailty is insecurity that many misread as arrogance.Everyone at Wharton now knows that Valentine and Steve Phillips are Hillary and Rudy, and no gag gifts will change that. Is Phillips 100 percent right? Of course not. But Bobby isn't 100 percent right, either, although Valentine will get more local media support because he'll campaign cookies to columnists and Phillips never will. Keep that in mind when you read about the subject. Valentine has legitimate beefs about trading Masato Yoshii. which hurt the team's starting pitching depth; Phillips has legitimate beefs about some players that Valentine hasn't wanted.
That's no big deal. Managers and general managers disagree constantly. Jimy Williams gave Mike Stanley enough at-bats last season to qualify Stanley for his 2000 option, when Dan Duquette wanted to go in another direction. Williams didn't want Jon Nunnally, but Duquette grabbed Pete Schourek at the Bradenton waste facility and handed him to his manager to start while moving Tim Wakefield to the bullpen. These disagreements can be worked out.
Valentine's contract demands that he win and win today. Phillips has to take a longer view. He couldn't get Manny Aybar because he couldn't deal Jay Payton or Benny Agbayani, knowing most of his outfield will be free agents at the end of the season. When he talked to the Mariners about Brett Tomko and/or John Halama, he refused to give up prospect Jason Tyner, because many of the Mets people believe Tyner will be an effective major league leadoff hitter. There may be those who feel Phillips doesn't do enough, but no one can satisfy talk show callers and maintain organizational stability, and anyway, if you talk to GMs they'll tell you that no one is more persistent than Phillips.
So can the Mets work things out, as long as their considerable talent plays out? Rickey Henderson may drive the manager crazy, but he can play, produces runs and down the stretch will perform because he's got numerical goals. Rey Ordonez will get over being messed up at the plate. Todd Zeile will be fine at first; he got messed up by trying to play the Keith Hernandez roaming style. Zeile needs to stay at home and learn to avoid the 4-to-1 plays at first base.
But for those who now ridicule the grad student who started Whartongate, understand that the players know Valentine has said some of those things. Zeile is used to it by now; he was criticized in spring training for a play in a split-squad game that Valentine didn't attend and didn't occur the way it was told to the media. The question is whether or not Valentine will slip with what he says. And when it happens again, will this be viewed the way several other general managers see it -- as gross insubordination by an employee against his boss.
New York Post columnist Joel Sherman was right when he wrote that only the lack of a successor has kept Valentine on through all of this. Jim Leyland said this spring that he was burned out and wouldn't enjoy the New York experience one bit. The Mets are not going to bring someone in during the season who doesn't have major league experience, and right now the only possibility is Dodgers coach Glenn Hoffman, who is the anti-Bobby in terms of personality, but is a development person who has previously worked with Mets pitching coach Dave Wallace. Hoffman also learned, coming up in Boston and managing in L.A., what not to say.
Hoffman is not the marquee name that the Mets believe is required should they replace Valentine. And there is no guarantee that he is anywhere near the manager Valentine happens to be.
But they are thinking about it, because the next time there's a Sports Illustrated article or a Whartongate, the Mets believe their house divided could fall apart. Is it Valentine's fault? To some degree. Is it Phillips' fault? Yes, because he should have managed all this better. But, in the end, it's the owner's fault. He has $80-something million tied up in this one-year-only team and left his manager and general manager with their insecurities exposed to the wind.
Juan ... gone?
OK, it's been very cold in Detroit and the ball hasn't carried at Comerica; let's see how it goes in a couple of months, because a lot of people believe the ball will carry much better as it warms up (hey, look at Seattle -- they moaned last season, but once the Kingdome went down the wind patterns shifted and in warm weather the ball now carries pretty well).
OK, they ran into some bad fortune the last couple of years and didn't move into Comerica with a playoff contender, like the Indians did when they moved into Jacobs Field. But Gonzalez is part of the Tiger perception problem -- while the Giants and Astros are playing to full houses, the Tigers are a disappointing 19th among the 30 teams in average attendance through April 18.
Speaking of vast disappointments, where once the Blue Jays were the first team to draw 4 million fans, they had the fourth-lowest average attendance in baseball. ... Then there are Les Expos. They have no games on local TV. They have no English radio outlet. However, they're still paying legendary radio announcer Dave Van Horne, and if you want to hear his broadcast, go to majorleaguebaseball.com, scroll up to the Expos and listen on your computer. That's your only way of hearing the exploits of Vladimir Guerrero.
Things we've learned
Sure, there are some defensive questions on the left side of the field and behind the plate, but Chicago has a young catcher (Josh Paul), third baseman (Joe Crede) and shortstop (Jason Dellaero) on the horizon. And the Sox may have enough offense to carry Dellaero, who has a rocket arm, if he doesn't hit. This is a fun team, like the Royals, and being in Chicago should have enough money to keep the good young players and go out and get a couple of pitchers when and if they're knocking on Cleveland's door.
Part of the success is Scioscia's remarkable understanding of pitching. Part of it is pitching coach Bud Black, who has brought these pitchers to the basics: fastball/changeup to get ahead, then go to breaking balls, because with the current strike zone, it's hard to get breaking balls called for strikes. Another thing: last year, Troy Percival didn't have this kind of command of his breaking ball, and now that he's healthy that low fastball that starts out below the knees and takes off above them is back.
News and notes
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